So I finally finished Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. I know, I know . . . it takes me forever to read a good book on writing. But I like to take my time. I like to do all the exercises. I like to saunter. And I especially liked sauntering through this book. In fact, I can’t wait to read The Wizard of Earthsea which waits in queue next to my nightstand. It’s not a book on writing but I have a feeling it’s going to be another awesome Le Guin adventure!
I think the thing that makes Steering the Craft different from other books about writing is that it encompasses more than just the craft itself. Oh sure, there’s a chapter on punctuation, another on sentence length and syntax, even one dedicated to those frustratingly pesky adjectives and adverbs. But there’s also a chapter called “The Sound of Your Writing.” And one toward the end called “Crowding and Leaping,” chapters designed to help with the story telling side of things and not so much the mechanics that go into it. Because, when it comes right down to it, we writers are story tellers. No matter how good we are at Words-With-Friends, no matter how well we’ve mastered the illusive comma usage rules, or how grammatically correct all our sentences are, if we can’t tell the story the way it wants to be told, then it’s all for naught.
There’s a section toward the end of Steering the Craft called “A Discussion of Story” in which Le Guin says this:
“I define story as a narrative of events (external or psychological) which moves through time or implies the passage of time, and which involves change.
I define plot as a form of story which uses action as its mode, usually in the form of conflict . . .
The story is not in the plot but in the telling. It is the telling that moves . . . Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing.”
I like how she says this – how not all stories need plot and conflict. Some stories need to turn in complex circles. Some need to leap across years and over oceans. Others need to just plain saunter. And it’s up to us, as writers, to figure out what’s right for each story.
A wise professor once told me that it’s possible to “write the heart” out of a thing – be it a poem, a short story or a novel and we need to work hard not to work too hard! I think that’s true. I think there’s a balance between the mechanics of the writing and maintaining the integrity of the story itself. If we get too hung up on the first, then our words become wooden and we lose the heart of the story. But if we focus too much on the latter, then we risk being the only ones who understand ourselves. And if we try to impose a conflict, plot or other writing mechanics when all our story wants to do is saunter, then perhaps were not listening right.
Steering the Craft has left me with lots to think about. I know it will stay on my list of favorite books on writing and I’ll undoubtedly read it again someday. It’s not only taught me lessons on the craft of writing, but also something about leaping. Something about crowding. And, of course, something about sauntering.